Violence In The Library

When we’re confronted with abuse, we feel the urge to do harm to the abusers. Josh Hanagarne reflects on his experiences, and his impulses.

Details have been changed to protect the people involved.

The woman got off the elevator and trudged to the reference desk, bent as if she was wearing a backpack full of rocks. Maybe 5’5”, 135 pounds at most. Early forties. She had blond hair, bent glasses, and her left arm was locked into a ninety degree angle by a plaster cast the color of a new bruise. Staring at the floor, she said:

“Can you help me find something about recovering from abuse?”

“Of course,” I said, my voice was already shaking.

In situations like this, librarians don’t pry with follow-up questions, but as I took her to the section, she talked. “My husband broke my arm a week ago. This was the worst it had ever been. He always yelled at me, and he’d hit me a little, but just slaps…” she trailed off but showed me the cast. “And now he’s got my fifteen year old son mad at me, and he’s got him thinking that I deserved what I got, and now he’s living with him. He picks him and I’m the one who’s here looking for— ” Her shoulders slump, lower, lower still, and there are tears on her cheeks. “My son is all I’ve got. And he hates me. Because of his dad. He was supposed to take care of us.”

I showed her the books. “I mean, this stuff might be useful to you, but listen, we have resources I can give you,” I said. “Shelters. Places you can go and be safe. Places for women who—” Now my voice is breaking and I can’t stop it. She look at me with astonishment on her face and says, “Are you crying?”

If I hadn’t been, I was now. I hugged her, she hugged me back, and we sat there sniffling in the stacks for a couple of minutes. A strange scene, the unnaturally tall man and the tiny, diminished, broken woman, embracing in the books.

“Well what’s the matter with you?” she said. “How’d you get so sensitive?” And we both laughed and let go of each other. But then I stopped laughing and knelt down so I could see her face better.

“Men who hurt women should be put down,” I said.

Now she laughed. “I’m going to tell him you said that. I doubt he’d mess with you”

“No!” I said. “I mean…what I mean is, why would you tell him anything at all? You’re not going to see him again, are you?”

She hugged me again. “Thank you for the books. I’ll be back.” Then she was gone.

It’s been a few months. I haven’t seen her since.


Two months after my sister got married, I got a call from my mom, who was living in Canada at the time. My sister’s new husband had been abusing her. I’d known the guy for years. He was no paragon of virtue, but I hadn’t expected this. That night I drove the four hours to her city to bring her home with me and deal with whatever I’d need to deal with. As I drove, I was terrified by how angry and crazed I felt. I thought I’d been mad before, but this was different. Not only had this man hurt a woman, the woman was my sister. With each mile I grew more afraid for him and for myself. I wondered whether I’d be a murderer by the time the sun rose.

Luckily for us both, he wasn’t there. I packed a bag for her, got her in my car, and we drove back to Salt Lake without saying much. Occasionally I’d reach over and squeeze her hand. She was smaller than the last time I’d seen her. Diminished.


The lady from the library did tell her husband about our talk. He came in full of swagger, a small man with a big sneer. “Are you Josh?”

“Yes, what can I do for you?”

“Well, you can tell why you and my wife were telling lies about me and why you think you’re some sort of a badass who’s going to do something to me.”

“Your wife was the woman in the cast?”


I sat back down and started checking my email. There was a time when, had you asked me how I’d react to this, I probably would have said, “I’d break his neck!” or something equally blustering and unlikely. But when I saw him, I couldn’t even work up the energy to feel angry.

“Hey!” he said.

“I’m not talking to you,” I said.

“Why not?”

I looked at him. “It makes me feel sick. I just can’t. I literally feel sick talking to you.”

Violent people understand violence. He expected me to posture, or maybe even to fight. He couldn’t figure out what to do with my reaction. He made fists, then unclenched them. He tried to stand a little taller and flare his back out like a cobra, but it lacked the intended menace.

“Yeah, well, I’ve disappointed a lot of people,” he finally said, but his lip was still sneering as he searched for a way to stay defiant. And in that moment, he just seemed pathetic.

I had a lot of emails. When I finished, he was gone.

The man who hurts a woman because he is physically stronger is the weakest, most pitiful creature around. When he hurts the woman he is supposed to protect, love, and cherish…I’m not much of a moralist, but if anything is truly evil, that has to qualify.

My dad is my hero and has been a wonderful influence. He taught me to work, to respect women, to strive, and to stand up for people who can’t or won’t do it for themselves. He taught me to fight when I have to fight, and to back down when that makes more sense. But it’s been the women in my life who have shaped me, guided, me, made me understand the importance of compassion and kindness. The women in my life are the answer to the question, “How’d you get so sensitive?” Who would I be without them? I’m glad I don’t know. Every time I meet a woman who has been abused by a man, I don’t just see the shaken, battered body. I see the people that woman won’t be able to influence because maybe she’ll never know her worth again. Maybe she’ll never recover an identity of her own beyond what she’s worth to a domineering man.

Don’t be the man who hurts women.

Don’t be that weak.

Don’t fool yourself, there’s no excuse.



Photo—Paul Lowry/Flickr

About Josh Hanagarne

Josh Hanagarne is the author of The World's Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette's, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family. It will be published by Gotham Books on May 2, 2013. He blogs at Please follow Josh on Twitter.


  1. Josh hanagarne says:

    Good point Valter. I will state unequivocally that for me, not all violence is equal. For instance, to me, an adult abusing a child is flat out obscene. That’s worse, in my opinion, than one adult hurting another. But it’s all awful, of course.

    Thanks for the comment.

    • Valter Viglietti says:

      “to me, an adult abusing a child is flat out obscene”

      I agree on this. Of course, some events feel worse than others.
      But, setting children apart, considering individuals in different ways is – somehow – defining them in “class A” and “class B” citizens; IMHO, this doesn’t help, and it’s actually discrimination.

      Of course, though, you (and everybody else) have the right to favour whoever you prefer. 😉

  2. Valter Viglietti says:

    Josh, awesome piece.

    I have just a little nitpicking: ““Men who hurt women should be put down”.
    It sounds like women who hurt men aren’t much of an issue. Aren’t they?

    I understand there’s a significant physical difference between the genders, but – IMO – violence is violence, regardless who’s the victim. Stating that some violence is worse than other, sounds like some violence can be tolerated.
    I know it wasn’t your intent, but your sentence is still sexist. And sexism is often the very basis violence on women is (or was) based on (“women are inferior”, “women are stupid”, “women are weak”…).

    That’s why I shudder every time I hear something sexist (be it pro or against a gender).
    Because I think that any sexism (even the well-meant ones) sustains the problem; it divides; it fuels a mentality of we-against-them.

    But, aside from this, I enjoyed your article very much, and I honestly admire your stance.

  3. Josh I think your restraint not only took a huge amount of strength but a huge amount of intelligence. It was a thoughtful response instead of emotional, maybe you taught him a little something …

  4. Bravo josh!

    For respect, restraint and for revealing the clenched jaw of humanity in face of inhumanity.

    Always, hoongyee

  5. John Anderson says:

    “He taught me to work, to respect women, to strive, and to stand up for people who can’t or won’t do it for themselves.”

    That sounded so familiar. Before we were accepted into the dojang, we had to promise to respect our classmates, respect women, and defend women and the weak. You showed a lot of restraint. Did it help that you were in your workplace? Would you have reacted the same way if you met him on the street?

    We were taught to walk away from confrontation when we could. I admit that there was a time when I hunted and beat some of the people who had bullied me. I haven’t been in a fight in about 25 years, but some guys just make you want to come out of retirement.

    • John, that’s a good question. I’m not sure, but I doubt I would have handled it as well if he confronted me while we were out and about.

      My biggest fear in a situation like that would be that in dealing with him, I’d make her situation even worse. In the moment, I’m not sure, though. I’ve got a temper like everyone else, and I can certainly be provoked into unwise actions.

  6. It breaks my heart that their son chose to live with his father.

    • It may have been that the father had already got to the kid. Lots of time the abuser teaches the kids that this is how you “handle” a woman.

      Once when I was working on a hotline a woman told me that if she did leave her mother would tell her husband where she was again. So I told her that she didn’t have to tell her mother the truth if it endangered her life and it did! I encouraged her to leave and make friends with some truckers. Get them to bring her postcards and mail the post cards from different parts of the country. Let her husband go charging off to the wrong part of the country. Unfortunately, that was before Facebook. It makes people easier to find. Especially if they don’t realize how vunerable it can make them!

  7. Thomas Matlack says:

    Josh its awesome to have you here telling it like it is. This piece reminded me a little of my friend Julio who was a drug load before going to Sing Sing. When he came out the biggest of the bigs came by to tell him it was time to back in the game. And he would not be moved. You might get something out of the story:

  8. Drew Bowling says:

    Curious, why do you describe her as a “broken” woman?

  9. You’re welcome Leia. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  10. Thank you for sticking up for someone, who has been weakened by abuse…Just having one person who has your back can change your worldview….

    When I told my karate teacher that I was taking his class, not because I was fascinated with martial arts, but because I was being stalked by an ex and panicking, he at first seemed shocked and looked around to see if my stalker was there in the gym ready to pounce on me or shoot me (he wasn’t BTW)…later my sensei relaxed and made jokes about it and reassured me that no one was going to hurt me if he and my karate partners were around….

    It took some weeks but eventually the fear and the hyperalert state faded and I could sleep again peacefully knowing that other men believed me and supported me and would fight to protect me if needed….

    I suppose even the littlest bullies need someone even smaller than them to boss around to feel powerful….Thanks for your story…

    • John Anderson says:

      “It took some weeks but eventually the fear and the hyperalert state faded and I could sleep again peacefully knowing that other men believed me and supported me and would fight to protect me if needed….”

      There are more guys out there like that than you think. We just don’t get the press. When I met by sister in laws cousin’s boyfriend. I had this strong urge to tear his windpipe from his throat. It was the first time I ever felt that way when I just met someone. My mom would tell me that he never took his eyes off me when we were in the same room so I guess the feeling was mutual.

      My 3 year old niece was deathly afraid of him too. When he was around she would look for me not her dad like she usually did when she was scared. It’s like she knew we were natural enemies. He put two bullets in my sister in laws cousin’s head. He was so pathetic that he needed a gun. At her funeral, all I could think of when I looked into her casket was I’m sorry I should have ripped his windpipe out when I had the chance.

      Surviving the abuse shows just how strong you are. It’s not just the people in your dojo who believe in you. There’s at least one other right here.


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